Pay The Devil Later? This Faust Transacts Silliness

Doctor Faustus, who originated with the German writer Goethe, is that character for whom the phrase, “Faustian bargain” was coined. A Faustian bargain occurs when you make a pay-later deal with the devil; by definition, that lends (high) anxiety to the eponymous character.

In Goethe’s tragic 19th-century play, Faust begins the drama as a striver after knowledge – God’s favorite. Mephistopheles agrees to do Faust’s bidding on earth, in exchange for Faust’s becoming his handservant in hell.

It’s a complex piece of theater. The dark angel seeks out God’s pet; the man of science seeks out transcendent experience, and Marguerite, overt object of desire, suffers.

Gounod’s Faust, the Opera, borrows some of these conceits. But at Santa Fe Opera this season, the production goes awry.

Faust (Bryan Hymel/Dimitri Pittas; I saw Hymel) in his study, aware that his life of science has caused him to miss out on life’s pleasure, meets Mephistopheles, who shows him Marguerite as the symbol of all the desire and love he has missed experiencing.

That’s where the trouble starts. In this Faust, directed by Stephen Lawless, Bryan Hymel plays up impetuous suitor arguably to the exclusion of all other emotional expression. His being rendered a young man again by Mephistopheles (Mark Doss) makes him not only foolish, but robs him of the leavening of memory that in the best appearances give the character a sense of being in the grips of something he knew better than to want, but could not help himself wishing. It does a disservice to the play  – no matter whether the original drama, or the Gounod opera – to have the lead so fatuous, as if he stepped out of a Watteau canvas, rather than an existential crisis of spirit.

I was equally disappointed in Marguerite (Ailyn Perez), whose voice is lovely but who never seemed comfortable in the part, her body language far too static, despite the approximation of high-colored gaiety.

When the program reports on SFO’s delivery of the Faust and Marguerite love story this season , it writes , “None of this is to suggest that Gounod’s Faust hollows out a work of literary gravitas,”  but there lands smack on the problem: It may not be Gounod’s libretto at fault, but this production which indeed hollowed out gravitas and delivered melodrama and a sort of half-baked one. Faust as discombobulated school boy, in an opera “colorful, fun and upbeat,” as the Santa Fe Opera website flouted a local review, really quite missesthe point. Especially because Faust is especially pertinent now when the entire society can question relationships between desires and bargains. It is to opera to transport us by giving us, indeed, the gravitas of characters who even if they plunge, sooner or later must reflect on the price of passing fancy.  A story indeed for our times. Sadly, not as delivered in these five acts.

Faust: August 15, 20, 24, 27. At Santa Fe Opera. Tickets: 505-986-5900.

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